How to start drawing portraits: a step by step guide

Having designed and worked through this project with 60 year five children I thought I would share it as a sort of tutorial. The process is to show one way of attempting  to draw the human face with the aims of making it simple and less daunting for beginners.

So firstly assemble your materials:

  • Pencils ( perhaps a HB, 2H, 2B, 4B or just one if you don’t have all these fancy pencils).
  • Some A4 or A3 paper (cartridge paper/sketch pad).
  • If you really need to, a rubber or putty rubber.
  • And of course, a wiling subject (someone in your family perhaps who doesn’t mind sitting still for a bit, or a photograph if you can’t find a willing victim!). Sit yourself comfortably so that you can view your subject head on, looking straight into their face and about a meter and a half or so away.

Now you are ready, here goes…

Step 1. Draw a nice large oval in the middle of your paper, press lightly with your pencil (HB). Be free and just simply draw the oval until you like the shape.

portrait oval

Step 2. draw a vertical line down the centre of your oval and then draw a horizontal line across the centre of the oval so you end up with this. Remember to draw lightly.

portrait drawing

Step 3. Then draw two more horizontal lines which cut the bottom and top sections in half again. So now your oval should have one vertical line down the centre and three horizontal lines that cut the oval into four sections. You can see these lines in the picture below.

portrait drawing

Step 4. Then draw in the eye shapes along the central horizontal line. (Don’t get into too much detail yet-you may need to make adjustments later). Eyes generally have an eye width between them.

  • The bottom of the nose comes along the lowest horizontal line plot this in vaguely. You can also see that the nostrils end where the eyes begin. (see drawing above where I have drawn a line down from the eyes to the ends of the nostrils).
  • The line of the lips comes in the middle, between the lowest horizontal line and the bottom of your oval, draw this as well.
  • The hair line comes to the topmost horizontal line (unless your subject is bald of course or a muppet!) Add the hair line.

Step 5. Now look at your subjects face shape, is it like the oval shape on your paper or are their jaws larger, sharper, is their chin pointy or chubby, curvy or bearded. Change the shape to match your subject.

  • You have plotted in a vague nose, now adjust it to suite your subject’s nose, look at their nostrils and check if they are flared, curvy, straight. How much of them can you see from where you are. (It’s a bit odd but noses have always reminded me of pants, think of that and perhaps you wont find it quite so scary drawing it.) Keep checking back to your subject.
  • Now give yourself a break from that nose and look at the hair line. Make it gradual and gentle, go up close to your subject and notice how there are small, thin hairs that  gradually get thicker and form the hair line. If they are bald then the shape of their head will be important to make them look like them and not somebody else.
  • Lips can be tricky. The advice I can give for the lips is to draw them as volume and surface rather than drawing a line around them for their shape. Use gentle shading to  show their shape and squint your eyes to see the darker shadows around the lips that help them have their shape. Sometimes there’s a shadow under the chin that really gives the lips their shape, so use it. Check, is the top lip a darker shade than the bottom lip?
  • Now back to the eyes. Take a close look at them, they are the windows to that person’s soul so take your time looking. Look at the light and how it reflects off the iris. See the eye lids, are they tired lids, can you see a lot of them, can you see creases around them? what about how much iris (the coloured bit) is visible, every one is different so take note of your subject’s own uniqueness. Now begin to capture what you have observed. Start with lighter markings and gradually work in your darker shading as you begin to see more clearly. Keep checking back to your subject. 

drawing portrait-eyes


Step 6. Now take your work and stick it up at the other end of the room, on a shelf or wherever. Look out the window for a little while, make a cup of tea, take a ten minute break if you really need it. Do this, Its just as important as drawing. 

Step 7. Return to the room and stand a few meters away from the drawing, imagine that it is someone else’s work and you are simply looking at it. Look objectively at it, and very uncritically see if there are any adjustments that can be made to the drawing that you could pass onto the person who drew it. Are the eyes too big, or close together? Is the nose too long and the chin too short? Is the head too small/big?

Step 8. Now you can be you again. Take your drawing and adjust anything that you noticed earlier. Add the ears if you can see them and any details to the face, skin, hair, and perhaps a neck. The top of the ears are level with the tops of the eye lids and the bottom of the ears are level with the bottom of the nose. The neck is a little thinner than the face and extends down from under the jaw (although this varies with the weight/size of the subject). Do not work automatically here, still keep awake and always look back at your subject.

portrait drawingIn the picture above you can see I haven’t yet done the lips, you can also see that when I stepped back I noticed that the chin I originally had was far too small and need to be extended below my original oval. You can also see that his forehead is far too small, the sides of his face are too thin and his ears are uneven. All things that can be corrected once they are actually seen during Step 7.

portrait drawing


You may notice here that the top of the head is missing, I gradually make it larger in the next few pictures. I noticed this when I stepped back from the drawing and observed it objectively.portrait drawing-Churchill

portrait drawing-Churchill


portrait drawing


What ever stage you get to, you should be proud of your self and rest in the knowledge that you are attempting to draw one of the hardest things an artist can choose to draw. The human face! Where ever you’re at, its just practice and more practice and more practice. Working from a 2D image does make things a little easier as you don’t have to work so hard to convert something that is 3D onto a 2D sheet of paper. However the life, vibrancy and character of a person are lost when working from an image and sometimes its that vibrancy that can inspire you to draw in a way that you would have never expected.

I thought I would include some of the drawings my 10-11 year olds did. They were studying WWII and they combined their portraits so that one side was Sir Winston Churchill and the other side was HItler.

IMG_0748WWI portraitsWWII portraitsThe pictures below were by children who used the skills they had been taught in the Churchill/Hitler portrait to draw some other WWII leaders like Hideki Tōjō of Japan.WWII leaderWWII leader Good luck and I hope this tutorial has been of some help to you.


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